Pük, Memory

Why I Learned a Universal Language No One Speaks

Even if this had been feasible, Schleyer would probably have been unwilling to give up the umlaut. Without it, he felt, a language would be incomplete, "like a coloured picture without violet, brown, grey or rose." When you think about the hand-painted photographs of the 1880s, which had scarcely any colors but brown, gray, and a lurid dark red, you realize that, for Schleyer, the umlaut was life itself, or at least as close as you could come to it in the late 19th century.


Translate the following into Volapük:

He received a communication from God, instructing him to make a new language that everyone could speak.
illustration by Charlene Potts
He received a communication from God, instructing him to make a new language that everyone could speak.

1. The scholars are in the garden and have the man's dogs.
2. His bosom-friend is a good man, but he has certainly not invented the gunpowder.
3. Egypt, as Herodotus said, was the country of the Egyptians.
4. O mother, the men are bad! They have knives and books also.

These exercises appear in Klas Linderfelt's Volapük, published in Milwaukee in 1888. A contemporary reviewer noted that Linderfelt "seems imperfectly acquainted with English." I prefer to think that he was demonstrating the difficulty of international communication, or the accidental beauty of sentences written in a language that is not your own.

The Tower of Babel

The Third Volapük International Congress was held in Paris. The Eiffel Tower had just opened, part of the Exposition of 1889; thousands of visitors gawked at the elevators, the ironwork, the view from the top, and, far below, the new electric street lamps on the Champs-Élysées. Things that had seemed impossible 50 years ago were now on sale at reduced prices, and the wonders promised never to end. In this giddy spirit the delegates—speaking to one another entirely in Volapük, remember—voted to establish an International Academy to govern the language's future. They elected a French-speaking Dutchman, Auguste Kerckhoffs, as the academy's president. Lifom-ös Volapük! they cried. They couldn't know that they had gone too far, or that their language would soon fall apart.

Kerckhoffs was the author of a popular Volapük grammar (as well as a study of monumental art and a history of military cryptography, among other works). He believed that Volapük was too complicated—not unreasonably, given that, by combining prefixes and suffixes, you could make as many as 504,440 forms from a single verb. Kerckhoffs proposed reducing the number of noun cases and verb tenses, which would have simplified things considerably. But Father Schleyer would not allow anyone to change the language he had created at God's behest. He demanded the right to veto the academy's decisions; Kerckhoffs refused, and they fought for control of the language until Kerckhoffs resigned from the academy in 1891. Schleyer, meanwhile, had decided that no one but him should have any say in Volapük at all; he formed his own academy, composed entirely of people who agreed with him.

The Volapükists didn't know whom to support. Some local societies sided with Schleyer, others with Kerckhoffs. Worse, now that Kerckhoffs had pointed out a few of Volapük's flaws, everyone wanted to tinker with the language. Because Schleyer retained absolute control over Volapük, their only recourse was to invent languages of their own. Dialects multiplied: The years 1893-1907 saw the emergence of Dil, Veltparl, Dilpok, Idiom neutral, Lingua european, and Idiom neutral reformed, all of them derived from Volapük. It was the Tower of Babel all over again, only this time the humans managed to confound their tongues without supernatural help. The story of Volapük's disintegration makes you wonder whether the evolution of language was nothing but a series of spats between people too proud to compromise. One hominid wants to call fire fuhand the other wants to call it ig; they go their separate ways, and a few thousand years later they have become Germans and Romans, and they're still bickering.

The Cifal

I am speaking with Brian Bishop, the Cifal or Supreme Boss of the international Volapük movement. He is on his way to a conference of Latin speakers. For a week, educated Europeans will greet each other, Quis agis hodie, how's it going today? They will ask after the wives (uxores) and the kids (filii). If the world is going to speak one language, Bishop believes, then why not Latin, which already has a literature, and doesn't belong to anyone? People might as well speak Latin; they certainly won't speak Volapük.

Johann Martin Schleyer lived until 1912 (although American newspapers, sensing perhaps a disturbance in the Volapük community, printed his obituary in 1888). By the time he died, almost everyone had forgotten his language. Some former Volapükists clung to their splinter tongues; many more rallied to a new universal language, easier to learn and pronounce, called Esperanto. Volapük, what was left of it, was reformed in the 1920s by a Dutchman named Arie de Jong, who reintroduced the letter r—noting, with a certain wisdom, that the Japanese had trouble with all those ls. It was taught in Germany and the Netherlands until the 1930s, when it was banned by the Nazis, who wanted the world to speak German; Volapük went underground and resurfaced after the war.

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